Show your own cards, once in awhile
text by Kristen Sunstrum
“24 hours in the day”
I think to myself.
“If I get 8 hours of sleep, that means I’m still left with 16 free hours of the day.”
I scratch “Make food, eat - 2 hours” into my packed agenda.
“1 hour - gym” is inked into another cramped corner at 4pm.
With slight hesitation, I scribble “shower” after gym and before studying.
I take a look at the blurred, tiny lines graffitiing my agenda - satisfied, and thinking of the remaining 12 hours left to my day.
How would I use that time?
Sometimes, I would re-do hundreds of practice problems that I had done the day before, restarting from scratch until I got 100%.
Other days, I would wake up determined to have a “good” food day. I tripled checked that all my snacks had less than 100 calories and less than 3 grams of fat. This felt good. It felt good to be in control until I would binge on all the food I was depriving myself of later that night.
Or some days, I would ruminate thinking “it’s already 10 am, it’s too late”. I’d have full intentions of having a productive, creative and fulfilling day until I sat down at the library and beat myself up for not being there at 8am. I used to consider those days wasted.
I was using my those “free” 12 hours of time to wire myself into being the most productive person I could be. I didn’t see anything wrong with it at the time. I thought my habits were just a demonstration of hard work, time management and determination. Besides, didn’t my achievements throughout high-school reflect exactly that? I had a 98% in Grade 12 pre-calculus, I was able to survive off a granola bar for lunch everyday and I had friends to hang out and party with. What else could I possibly ask for?
During freshman seminar at McGill University, I learned about perfectionism for the first time.
Without missing a beat, myself, amongst quite a few other students proudly raised our hands as we identified with each of different characteristics that perfectionism entailed. We were surveying the rest of the class, and a subtle wave of self-satisfaction washed over our faces. At that point in time, tracking my days by calories and hours spent in the library was at an all time high. The only thing that changed from this instance I just described, is that I could now categorize my habits under a tidy, attractive little title - Perfectionism.
Luckily, over my years studying at McGill, the experiences I have had and the people I have met have allowed me to open up, dissect, and re-build my debilitating habits, transforming the rigidity I had towards myself into self-care. I admit that the aftertaste of a long history of perfectionism remain my characteristic signature, but I am conscientious each and every-day to distinguish whether the expectations I have for myself originate from self-love, or self-hate. This filtering of my actions essentially means I have full permission to reach the same outcomes, while questioning my motives. For example, if I have a deadline coming up, out of self-love I will complete the project, spending only the time I require before handing it in. Perfectionist-me would have said that the project needs to be completed 3-days before the deadline so I have time to review it and make final edits, and saying no to any social activities just to check boxes off a list - that’s self-hate.
The truth is that my story is not an uncommon one.
The cultural landscape of many university campuses is cultivated by perfectionism.
As women currently predominant in college enrollment they have a statistically more significant presence on campus. As of Fall 2018, females account for 68% of all students enrolled in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the Macdonald Campus of McGill University. That majority is also reflected in the entirety of McGill University, where 58% of students enrolled identify as female.
As I lack the concise writing skills to condense my views within a few sentences, I will directly quote an article written by Duke University graduate, Caralena Peterson who perfectly sums up my position:
“Effortless perfection creates an environment wherein we all are so set on making it seem like we have everything together at all points in time that, when we do inevitably hit a road bump, we look around at our seemly flawless peers and assume we are the only ones struggling. We do not realize the extent to which every other member of our community is carefully holding their cards close to their chest, unwilling to show anything beyond a socially accepted front of confident ease. We conclude there is no other way to deal with our problems than by ourselves, alone, if we do not wish to stand out as “broken” or “the one who couldn’t keep up.”
With these numbers, we can appreciate the impact that perfectionism may have within our own social circle. Even if a small percentage of women internalize perfectionism, this can have drastic impact on university culture, such as a skewed ideals we set for ourselves.
The issue with perfectionism is that it grants no room for struggle. As university students, we all know obstacles is inevitable, but we also need to learn that this discomfort in normal and welcome, as it challenges us to learn and rebuild ourselves. We all require and benefit from a hurdle which entails stress, as this allows us to meet deadlines, set new heights, and evolutionarily speaking, to escape a dangerous situation alive.
When our expectations for ourselves are motivated by a perfectionist's agenda, the valid and healthy stresses become suffocating. Receiving a failing grade (I got a 40% on my physics midterm in freshman year), eating toast for dinner because you haven’t figured out how to “adult”, buying groceries on a regular basis or struggling with expectations of relationships suddenly become a critical failure or a hopeless situation and ultimately a skewed reflection of our endless shortcomings as a young adult. When we look around to find comfort in the familiar; someone else who is struggling or at the very least, someone else who is not perfect, we often fail again. If everyone else is working to hide their own imperfections, we fall into a dangerous cycle as we are forced to deal with our issues in isolation which may manifest into anxiety, depression, eating disorders and many other kinds of serious, mental illnesses.
The more we hold our cards close to our chest, rejecting any hint of imperfection to seep into our frantic, manufactured persona - the more we contribute to the narrative of perfectionism on university campuses.
A positive take-away from realizing our own fears? We can attempt to identify and target risk factors to prevent and alleviate mental illnesses on campus.
Perfectionist-like personality traits often serve as a terrific mask, but can fool the individual hiding behind them. Those traits are often linked to eating disorders - a serious, but treatable mental illness. While this by no means serves as the only, or even most prominent or important factor contributing to the development of an eating disorder, it does gives light to the importance of a possible shift mentality, which could prevent the transformation of healthy expectations to those that destroy us.
What can we do? Research consistently shows that by raising awareness and diminishing the stigma amongst mental illnesses, which include eating disorders, individuals who are struggling are more likely to seek help.